Morris is in bed for a week following his injury, leaving Ida and Helen to tend the store. Ida becomes so worried and exhausted that she is forced to shut the store for one full day, upsetting Morris. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger begins hanging about the neighborhood. The stranger, a young, dark-bearded man, tells Sam Pearl that his name is Frank Alpine and that he has come from the West in search of opportunity. Sam sees Frank looking at a picture of Saint Francis of Assisi. Frank explains that he admires Saint Francis, having heard stories about the saint while a boy at the orphans’ home. Later, Helen sees Frank hanging around outside the grocery, looking haunted and sad.
Finally Morris is able to return to work, insisting on opening early for the Polish woman. The second day he is back at the store, he nearly collapses while struggling to drag in the milk, and Frank is there to catch him. The grocer thanks Frank and gives him coffee and bread. Frank says that he is in the area staying with his sister. He remarks that he used to work for a grocery store in San Francisco and would like to have one of his own. “A store is a prison. Look for something better,” Morris advises.
Frank, however, continues to show up at the store, helping Morris bring in the milk each morning. He confesses that he’s had a rough life. His mother died when he was an infant and his father abandoned him when he was five, so that he was raised in an orphans’ home and farmed out to various foster families. He tells Morris that he’d like to accomplish something worthwhile in his life, but that he’s been too restless and impatient, so that at age 25, he has nothing to call his own. Frank asks if he might work at the store for free with no wages, just for the experience, but Morris and Ida turn him down.
The scene changes, moving to the Coney Island boardwalk where Helen is walking with Louis Karp. Helen speaks of her desire for a larger, better, and more worthwhile life, but Louis doesn’t seem to understand her dreams and asks her to “drop this deep philosophy” so they can go get a hamburger. He tries to touch her, and even tells her he’d like to marry her, but Helen says no. She won’t compromise her ideals and accept less than what she wants in a husband.
The next day, it has snowed. Morris discovers that some milk and bread is missing. The same happens over the next several days. Finally he calls the police, and they send over Detective Minogue, who asks him some questions and promises to have a cop watch the store in the mornings. Before leaving, the detective asks Morris if he’s seen his son, Ward Minogue. Ward, a wild boy who used to terrorize the girls at Helen’s school, disappeared after his father beat him for stealing.
That night, Morris finds Frank Alpine hiding in his cellar. Frank confesses that he stole the milk and bread because he was hungry and couldn’t find a job. He admits that the story about having a sister was a lie. Morris feels sorry for Frank. He gives him something to eat and allows him to stay the night on the couch, despite Ida’s objections that “he’ll clean out the store!”
The next morning, Frank hasn’t stolen anything. Morris collapses while bringing in the milk, and Frank rescues him. While they wait for the ambulance, Frank puts on Morris’s apron and gets ready to work.
Analysis of Chapter 2
In Chapter 2, we meet Frank, the young Italian-American drifter and thief who is to become the “assistant” of the title. At this point, Frank’s character is still unclear. He is an admitted thief who has stolen milk and bread from the Bobers, but he also admires Saint Francis, whose name and Italian nationality he shares, and if his words to Morris can be trusted, he does long for a better, more worthwhile life. Morris’s trusting and generous nature is shown again in the sympathy he shows to Frank. Although she also pities Frank, Ida worries, and we the readers worry, too, as Morris lets this shady character into their lives.
Helen’s character is revealed further in this chapter. She is shown to be a strong woman with high ideals and hopes for a better future. She is unwilling to compromise her ideals to be with someone like Louis, who has no ambition, or someone like Nat Pearl, who doesn’t truly love her. Despite the mistakes she has made in the past, we admire Helen.
The motif of Saint Francis of Assisi, introduced in this chapter, will recur throughout the novel, along with imagery of flowers and birds, which are associated with this Catholic saint. Saint Francis is known for leading a life of poverty and self-denial, in search of a deeper spiritual understanding. Frank, too, leads a life of poverty, but unlike the saint, has not reached spiritual enlightenment. He is a liar and a thief. The rest of the novel will follow Frank as he attempts to raise himself up and emulate the saint.
Besides the similarity between the names “Frank” and “Francis,” it is worth noting that “Frank” means “honest” and “Alpine” describes high mountain peaks. Frank’s name, then, suggests what he aspires to be: an honest man reaching great heights.
As for Helen, her name reminds us of Helen of Troy, famous for being the ideal beauty of the ancient world. Like her classical namesake, Helen Bober is desired by many men, but holds herself aloof and apart.